In today's sharply divided politics, contests for the United States Senate tend to be much more about which party voters prefer than which candidate is most admirable.
Case in point: Republican David Vitter easily won reelection in 2010, three years after revelations of his contacts with a Washington, DC prostitution ring, by casting himself as the one thing standing between Louisiana and Democratic President Barack Obama. And even before last week's shocking, well-sourced Washington Post exposé alleging that Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore had initiated sexual encounters with teenage girls as young as 14, handicappers have been wondering whether Alabama would follow suit.
If Louisiana tilts red in national elections, Alabama is about as Republican as states come. The seat Moore hopes to claim was previously held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was considered a rightward outlier on many issues even among fellow Republicans but who attracted no opposition the last time he was on the ballot.
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Moore, the former Alabama Supreme Court justice who beat President Donald Trump's endorsed candidate in a knock-down, drag-out GOP primary, has long been a notoriously controversial figure. He was removed from the court for defying federal orders to remove a massive Ten Commandments monument, got elected again, then defied the United States Supreme Court's ruling legalizing same-sex marriage across the land. He's been an adherent of the birther movement, which falsely claimed that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and has claimed that Sharia law exists in the United States. He's said that homosexuality should be illegal, and once wrote in a formal opinion that it is "a crime against nature, an inherent evil, and an act so heinous that it defies one's ability to describe it." In the 1990s, he ruled that a mother who'd had a lesbian affair could not see her own children unsupervised; he was ultimately removed from the case for bias.
Yet until last week, a majority of Alabamans seemed to be with him, and while some squirmed, national Republicans were falling in line as well. At this point, it's not clear if the new revelations in the Post will change that.
The story, backed up by 30 sources, describes four long-ago incidents in which Moore sought sexual contact with teens. He allegedly approached the 14-year-old while he was a 32-year-old assistant district attorney and she and her mother were at the courthouse for a custody hearing. He assured the girl's mom that he'd keep an eye on her, the story says, then arranged a meeting days later, picked her up around the corner from her house, drove her into the woods and kissed her. During a second encounter, she said, he removed her outer clothes and his own, touched her over her bra and underpants and guided her hand to touch him over his underwear.
It took this, not what we knew about Moore before, to get most other Senate Republicans to disavow him, although many have added the caveat that the revelations are disqualifying "if true." But it appears to be too late to replace him on the ballot, so the real question is how Alabama voters will react.
If this is a line-in-the-sand moment, Louisiana has some experience in these things. In 1991, former Ku Klux Klan leader and anti-Semite David Duke ran for governor as a Republican and wound up in a runoff with a deeply flawed Democrat, Edwin Edwards — who, like Duke, would later be convicted of federal crimes. National Republicans disavowed Duke, and many Louisiana Republicans concluded that some things are more important than party, held their noses and backed Edwards.
It's worth noting that gubernatorial races are different from Senate contests. Voters in Louisiana didn't mind sending Vitter back to Washington to battle Obama, but said "no, thanks" when he ran for governor. And it's true that a win for Moore's Democratic opponent Doug Jones — a former prosecutor who, unlike Edwards, has an upstanding reputation — would shift the power balance in DC and perhaps affect key votes.
Still, when faced with a stark choice, Louisiana figured out where to draw a line. The question here, for both Alabama and the national GOP, is where's their line?